Open for Business

I work from home. Mostly remotely, mostly by myself. My clients all come to me by word of mouth, through my website, or through Twitter. How I appear on the web is of utmost importance to my business.

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I also tell the truth without prompting, and sometimes I just over-share.

Most of what I share online probably seems trivial, but I also discuss subjects that other people might consider off limits. I’ll happily talk about money, politics, beliefs, and my physical and mental wellbeing.

It wasn’t deliberate, but I meant it#section1

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a blog post about burnout. It detailed how I was struggling with work and felt mentally exhausted. It wasn’t a breakdown, but I could see how further unhealthy behavior could lead to that point.

People asked me why I felt comfortable sharing those feelings, and questioned how it might affect my relationships with clients. My only answer at that point was, “I don’t know, it just feels right.”

I try to be transparent in everything I do. It wasn’t a conscious decision. But trying to answer that question led me to examine why being so transparent didn’t have more of a detrimental effect on my business. In fact, my openness seems to help.

Open-door policy#section2

Being open as an individual isn’t just saying everything you think without caring—that’s called being a sociopath! If you want to be transparent, you still need some kind of filter. It’s like how we might not swear in front of our grandmothers; it’s not good manners. Or how we don’t use Twitter to broadcast every meal we eat, because we’d bore our followers. Diplomacy is necessary too. Very few of us want to be honest to the point that we hurt other people.

The most conscious decision I made about openness was to not put up a front and not always try to make myself look better. We all do things that make us look stupid from time to time (I do it a lot!). But what’s really wrong with looking stupid? Why would I want to pretend to be superhuman? That would just set unrealistic expectations for my clients and everybody else around me.

Working from home, my openness mostly comes out online. The web is a permanent record of my occasional successes and frequent failings. Openness also affects my projects, where I speak honestly about my opinions and decisions with my colleagues. And of course, openness is important face-to-face. When those online contacts turn into real life meetings, it’s vital that there’s consistency between my online and IRL selves.

Getting to know you#section3

Clients should feel they can trust me to be honest, reliable, and hardworking. These highly valued characteristics are hard to communicate early on in the relationship, and through the limited amount of meetings and interactions we might have over the duration of a project. Being open means that clients feel they know what they’re getting. It makes it less of a risk hiring me.

I wouldn’t want to work with someone who didn’t like me. This isn’t being precious, and it isn’t just a luxury. Bad client relationships kill the enthusiasm for the career you love. When your enthusiasm dies, the quality of your work tends to die with it. With a career that you spend at least seven hours a day, five days a week working on, losing love for your work can ruin your enjoyment of life.

Of course, my sharing of everything online has affected my relationships with past, current, and potential clients. Maybe it’s put off more clients that I’ll ever know! Perhaps it’s not showing my “professional side.” But I’m not so sure I want to fit in with this “professional” ideal.

Being professional shouldn’t need to be anything other than being respectful and polite. We shouldn’t have to dress formally or speak business jargon in order to be taken seriously. Transparency and trust helps build good relationships, because you can empathize with each other more easily.

Open to learning#section4

Being able to admit you’re not perfect is incredibly freeing. Reminding yourself that nobody is perfect allows you to learn from your mistakes, rather than letting them get you down. As a freelancer, it can be hard to show any weaknesses. But if we can’t admit that we don’t know everything, we’ll never learn anything. If I’m willing to ask questions and allow others to see that I don’t know or understand something, then I’m opening myself up to learning more.

We’re only human#section5

Inevitably, openness will backfire on you at some point. We all make mistakes. This could be broadcasting something inaccurate, overreacting, or being overemotional. It could be being unkind or rude to others. It’s unlikely that you mean it; very few people set out to be malicious.

If you want to keep up the transparency, it’s important to keep telling the truth. If you’ve made a mistake, you should admit it. Apologize to somebody if you upset them. Don’t worry about looking like you were right, worry about doing the right thing.

Remember that you are human, and the people worth knowing will forgive your mistakes. Use the mistakes you’ve made to do better next time.

Is it worth it?#section6

Some people might say the reason I tend toward openness is because I am naïve. I assume the best in people because I believe the majority have good intentions, and I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt. I know I wouldn’t be considered the best judge of character, but people very rarely take advantage of me through the information that I share.

Overall, I find sharing a lot is worthwhile. When I’ve had problems, people have offered to help me, even if I’m just moaning about jQuery on Twitter. When I’ve been suffering, people have sympathized and made me feel less alone.

Most importantly, it’s made me feel as though people understand me as a person. They understand my personality, my motivations, and the way I work. I’ve made connections to colleagues and clients who treat me as they’d want to be treated themselves.

About the Author

Laura Kalbag

Laura Kalbag is a designer working on Ind.ie. She was freelance for five years and still holds client work dear. She can be found via her personal site, Twitter, and out on long walks with her big fluffy dog.

13 Reader Comments

  1. I agree with every single line you wrote. As a freelancer working from home myself, I’ve always felt that being honest to yourself and your clients is the way to go. And I feel that we have the amazing privilege of being able to do so, unlike many employees who need to pretend just to make their boss happy. Thanks for writting this. Hope the tendency spreads!

  2. As someone who values honesty, transparency, and communication in the work I do and the client relationships I build, I say right on, Laura. There’s a tendency for some to try to appear superhuman, but our humanity is what makes us better designers and business people.

    In the end, we’re not merely building websites; we’re building relationships with our clients. That’s where the strength of our work resides.

  3. I love you right now!! haha. This is exactly how I feel. I want clients to hire me and who I am. If they don’t or if we put on this business persona something wont click right down the road. They say the best way to not get caught in a lie is to always tell the truth. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I really appreciate your honesty Laura.
    The “open-door policy” helps us to attract the right clients and sends signal that you expect the same in return.
    Designers as most of artists have their high highs and low lows. Knowing that we’re not alone in the Universe is really important.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Thank you Laura, this is such a lovely reminder that being honest and personal is a good way to go.

  6. A very touching post for me and every freelance workers in the world. 🙂

    I believe that my good relationship with clients is the most important thing to have, aside from my technical capability. While employed workers rely on teamworking, there is no tight relationship with clients. And this is what makes freelancing wonderful, the ability to connect with new and interesting people on the globe. 🙂

  7. Spot on, Laura! After 15 years of building and running websites the most important tool in my kit is the ability to play well with others…and I can only do that with clients with whom I share a mutual trust.

    I often say that it is I who hires the client… they only bring a set of needs and money, I am trading my intellectual capital (my “knowing what to do”) and will do so only if they pass a couple of tests. The most important test is if they can respond to emails!!!! and do so responsively to the point of the email. The second screening test is if they “get me” (and my wry wit) in our initial conversations (face to face, via email, or even on the “phone”).

    If you don’t like your client, you’re heading for a “death march’. Just don’t take ’em on!! If they pass your screening tests, and you do commit to their project,… and they appreciate what it is that makes you YOURSELF…it is a golden and rewarding experiences that sure beats the hell out of punching a clock in cubical land.

  8. Thanks for sharing and starting a discussion about what ‘looking professional’ online (and off) means for us freelancers. It’s an issue that’s often on my mind. I’m looking forward to see what other readers think.

  9. Loved the article and the comments. Just like most of you I, too, am a web designer working from home and am used to being honest and frank about who I am online.

    Recently, it’s been a struggle to decide how many of my opinions to spout off on my various social media streams as I discover that some of my clients and colleagues have radically different political views than mine. I’ve decided to share my own experiences not just opinions.

    DLminton, I appreciate your ‘client test’ regarding use of emails. I have a few clients who answer project emails with phone calls, which drives me nuts. I’m thinking that could be a good filter for me, too. Thanks to everyone for a great conversation!

  10. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint, Laura. I find myself wrestling with finding the balance between putting my best foot forward and telling the truth of my backstory. I’ve always had the courage to say the truth online, but in the last 6 months I’ve really found myself unable to keep quiet about my business journey, my struggles, and the hard reality of being self employed in an emerging business.

    For me, it comes down to honesty and vulnerability. Then I have to figure out the line between what’s personal and what’s just part of me wherever I show up.

    Thanks for giving this important conversation the digital ink that it deserves. And kudos to everyone who read it, shares, and and takes away the idea to talk about in private.

  11. Great article Laura and I completely agree. As a freelancer you are very much your own brand and to hide behind a standardized persona of a freelancer will not only weigh you down but make the world a very rigid place to live in.

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